Source : European Parliament Policy Department: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs
Full text of the Study
Author: Henri Labayle, professor at University de Pau et des pays de l’Adour (FR)
1. LEGAL FRAMEWORK OF RIGHT OF ACCESS TO DOCUMENTS
1.1 Constitutional framework
1.1.1 Principle of openness
1.1.2 Principle of transparency
1.1.3 Right of access to documents
1.2 Regulatory framework of the right of access to documents
1.2.1 System for the right of access
1.2.2 Exercise of the right of access
1.3 Case-law framework of the right of access to documents
1.3.1 Principle of right of access
1.3.2 Content of right of access
EXERCISING THE RIGHT OF ACCESS TO DOCUMENTS
2.1 Details of comparison
2.1.1 The Council of Europe
2.1.2 National comparisons
2.2 Institutional practices relating to access to documents
2.2.1 Practice of the Commission
2.2.2 Practice of the Council
2.2.3 Practice of the European Parliament
2.2.4 Details of comparison
3. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
This study is an update to a previous study about case law in relation to the right of (1) access to documents. It puts into perspective the Union’s institutional practice in relation to the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. The right of access to documents in the Union is part of a legal context updated by the Treaty of Lisbon. The principles of transparency and good governance have constitutional implications for the Union’s institutions, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union establishes them as a fundamental right. While the implementation of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 has been a success during the last 10 years, it now needs to be revised to bring it up to date.
In fact, the constitutional progress represented by the Treaty of Lisbon has been boosted by advances in case law.
The challenge of the revision process, requested by the European Parliament since 2006 and initiated in 2008, involves giving consideration to the following two elements: the declaration of a fundamental right and the important lessons learnt from case law.
This body of case law and observation of the Union’s institutional practice have given rise to the following significant remarks.
I – The first remark concerns the very nature of the right of access.
The combination of the Treaty of Lisbon with the case law relating to Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 now creates a different perception of the right of access. Before being an institutional challenge within the Union, requiring institutions to have the same amount of information when performing their duties, access to documents has now become a right of the individual. This is a general trend. It is noted in comparative law and in European law in particular, with this being confirmed by the Convention of the Council of Europe on Access to Official Documents. The nature of the obstacles it describes preventing the right of access is largely the same as that under EU law. On the other hand, the Union does not give a specific independent authority the guarantee of access to documents, unlike many of its Member States.
II – A second series of remarks derives from the Court of Justice’s interpretation of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001.
Apart from the far-reaching nature of this right, in less than five years, the Court has given its verdict accordingly on exercising the right of access in relation to administrative, legislative and judicial matters.
1. The right of access to documents is linked to the Union’s democratic nature. Transparency guarantees greater legitimacy and accountability of the administration in a democratic system because citizens need to have the opportunity to understand the considerations underpinning EU regulations in order to exercise their democratic rights (Turco, Access Info Europe cases).
2. Access must be as broad as possible, thereby reducing the internal `space to think’ or the `negotiation space’ which the institutions want. Therefore, protecting the decision-making process within the Union excludes any general confidentiality, especially in the field of legislation (Borax, Access Info and MyTravel cases).
3. The scope of the various exceptions is tightly controlled. Therefore, the major challenge posed by the exception concerning international relations does not automatically entail confidentiality (In’t Veld cases). Similarly, court proceedings are not excluded from transparency under the guise of respect for the proper administration of justice (API case). Legal opinions are not necessarily bound by confidentiality, especially on legislative matters (Turco and MyTravel cases), no more than the identity of Member States is protected by confidentiality during the legislative procedure (Access Info Europe case).
4. Combining data protection schemes may require ‘switching’ from a general regulation to a special regulation on data protection (Bavarian Lager case) and on monitoring activities. Legal protection for confidentiality (Bavarian Lager case) and a `general presumption’ of confidentiality (Technische Glaswerke Ilmenau case) may reduce the scope of transparency.
5. The documents supplied by Member States are not covered by general confidentiality (IFAW judgment).
III – There are also plenty of lessons which may be drawn from the practice of the three EU institutions, by reading the annual reports required by the regulation and looking at certain national practices.
1. The number of applications for access in the European Union is in decline. This is not in keeping with the practices in some Member States or even in states outside the EU such as the United States or Australia.
2. The volume of refusals to provide access remains proportionally large and is tending to rise.
3. The number of applications for access in the areas of Common and Foreign Security Policy (CFSP) and Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) confirms the sensitive nature of these matters.
The type of public interested in gaining access to documents should raise questions for the Union on two counts.
Firstly, professionals are the main group requesting access to documents (particularly Commission documents) and, secondly, university institutions are nowadays the most efficient channels for transmitting information and guaranteeing administrative transparency. The glaring lack of interest from ordinary citizens in transparency must provide some food for thought.
There is an ever-growing demand for openness and transparency in modern societies. The European Union is also subject to this demand, although it is not necessarily successful in finding solutions which meet people’s expectations.2.
The Union has undergone a sea change, from a diplomatic approach to dealing with records, where secrecy is the rule, to an institutional system requiring a democratic basis.
Firstly, and mainly as a result of the accession of new Member States, which are sensitive to this issue, the European Union made some of its documents available for public access. Declaration 17 annexed to the Treaty of Maastricht referred to the link between the transparency of the decision-making process and the democratic nature of the institutions, but its scope remained limited. Two Commission communications on transparency and access to documents were then published, followed by a `Code of Conduct’3 adopting the principle of public access to Council and Commission documents.
Secondly, the Treaty of Amsterdam enshrined these principles in primary law. Firstly, Article 1 of the treaty stated that decisions are taken as openly as possible’, thereby recognising the principle of openness. Secondly, Article 255 TEC provided a legal basis for governing the right of public access to EU documents. This would be achieved with the adoption of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents . Finally, the White Paper on governance 2001 would highlight the need for involvement from and openness towards citizens to restore confidence in the Union.
Until then, the principles of `openness’ and `transparency’, which were used frequently in common parlance, had actually fulfilled more of a political than a legal function. Highlighted by the European Union with the aim of abating the crisis of confidence over the administration, these principles still had very little regulatory force, unlike the right of access to documents, which would be developed under Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001.
The scope of this study does not extend to a more in-depth examination of this historical period, but it does cover two of its main features. Firstly, openness and transparency basically boiled down to just one thing, access to information; and, secondly, the guarantee from the judicature was key to ensuring that this right had real meaning.
Case law was intended to make the judicature a prominent player in the exercise of the right of access to documents, on the instigation of the European Ombudsman, thereby conferring upon it the status of a real fundamental right.
The prospect of this development was upset by the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. This treaty outlined a new legal framework both in terms of the functioning of the Union’s administration and of European citizens’ rights.
1. LEGAL FRAMEWORK OF RIGHT OF ACCESS TO DOCUMENTS
The Treaty of Lisbon changes not only the perception of the right of access to documents in the Union, but also the conditions under which the administration and the legislature perform their duties. Nowadays, the principles of openness and transparency feature in EU primary law, which should have consequences for the right of access to documents as one of the ways of applying that law.
1.1 Constitutional framework
The text of the treaty is clear: the principle of openness is set out in it. Hence its implementation via the principle of transparency and principle of access to documents6.
1.1.1 Principle of openness
This is a general, ‘umbrella’ term incorporating both the principle of transparency and the principle of participation.
Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) therefore echoes the Treaty of Amsterdam by stating that it marks ‘a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen’7.
The treaty conveys the specific meaning of this principle in two places. In Article 10(3) on the ‘functioning of the Union’, under Title II on ‘democratic principles’, the TEU confirms that ‘every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen’. The principle of openness is therefore linked for the first time to the ‘democratic life’ of the Union and to ‘representative democracy’. The Union is democratic because it is ‘open’ to its citizens, which is confirmed by the following article.
Article 11(2) TEU is aimed directly at the institutions, which must maintain ‘an open, transparent and regular dialogue’ with representative associations and civil society. It therefore adds an active dimension to the principle of openness.
The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) reinforces the basis of the principle by setting out the terms for its implementation in Article 15(1) TFEU. The ‘Union’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies’ have a duty to conduct their work ‘as openly as possible’ and this is ‘in order to promote good governance and ensure the participation of civil society’. This requirement requires several comments.
At this stage, the principle of openness in the Union was still regarded as a prerequisite for its functioning more than as a right of its citizens. This explains why it had a very wide scope of application, extending across the whole administrative machinery. Although it did not have an absolute remit and included no obligations in terms of results, the ‘promotion’ objective assigned to the Union still required the Union to adopt a dynamic approach.
Finally, Article 298(1) and (2) TFEU provided a vital addition to the regulatory transposition of the principle of openness. Stating that in carrying out their missions, the institutions, bodies, offices and agencies of the Union ‘shall have the support of an open, efficient and independent European administration’, it conferred on the Union’s legislature the power to ‘establish provisions to that end’.
1.1.2 Principle of transparency
As the Court of Justice confirmed in a leading case discussed below, ‘a lack of information and debate is capable of giving rise to doubts in the minds of citizens, not only as regards the lawfulness of an isolated act, but also as regards the legitimacy of the decision-making process as a whole’8. With those words, the Union judge put the debate on transparency9 squarely in the camp of legitimacy and democracy. From his perspective, ‘it is precisely openness in this regard that contributes to conferring greater legitimacy on the institutions in the eyes of European citizens and increasing their confidence in them by allowing divergences between various points of view to be openly debated’.
Previously and without yet mentioning the ‘requirement of transparency’10, the case law of the General Court and the Court of Justice had been based on Declaration 17 annexed to the Treaty of Maastricht11, in the absence of another more explicit text. Once this text became available with Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001, the judicature reinforced its argument. Transparency guarantees that ‘the administration enjoys greater legitimacy and is more effective and more accountable to the citizen in a democratic system’12. It enables them ‘to carry out genuine and efficient monitoring of the exercise of the powers vested in the Community institutions’13 . ‘Only where there is appropriate publicity of the activities of the legislature, the executive and the public administration in general, is it possible for there to be effective, efficient supervision, inter alia at the level of public opinion, of the operations of the governing organization and also for genuinely participatory organizational models to evolve as regards relations between the administration and the administered.’14
The procedural transparency and institutional transparency referred to in the TEU and TFEU merged in the Treaty of Lisbon to give some practical meaning to the Union’s action15.
The principle’s normative scope still remained limited,16 but the provisions of Article 11 TEU indicate that the battle lines had shifted. The Union’s institutions now had an obligation to apply the principle ‘by appropriate means’. Whether this involved the ‘open, transparent and regular dialogue’ with civil society stated in Article 11(2) TEU or the EU’s’actions being transparent’, which requires ‘broad consultations’ under paragraph 3, the respect for ‘democratic principles’ mentioned under Title II TEU exerted new pressure on the institutions, especially when it came to access to information, and by extension, documents. Therefore, this citizen’s right shifts from being a judgment call to being exercised in a regulatory context.
The consequences arising from this change of perspective were significant. The call for openness and transparency was no longer an abstract reference in this case, but represented a condition for the democratic legitimacy of the rule of the Union. The treaty ‘legalised’ principles that could, one day, be interpreted on the basis of case law, if, for example, a legislative act has been adopted outside this participatory dialogue required by the treaty.
1.1.3 Right of access to documents
The public’s right to access institutional documents17 was asserted in the Union by way of regulation before being enshrined in the founding treaties. The implementing regulation came before the constitutional declaration in this case, with the judge pointing out that ‘the domestic legislation of most Member States now enshrines in a general manner the public’s right of access to documents held by public authorities as a constitutional or legislative principle’18.
This right is based politically on the principle of transparency. This was confirmed by the Court of Justice in 2007: its ‘aim is to improve the transparency of the Community decision-making process, since such openness inter alia guarantees that the administration enjoys greater legitimacy and is more effective and more accountable to the citizen in a democratic system’19 . As the Court points out, ‘the possibility for citizens to find out the considerations underpinning legislative action is a precondition for the effective exercise of their democratic rights’20.
Legally speaking, this right was therefore established initially on the basis of Article 255 TEC, which gave citizens the right to access the documents of the three main institutions. It subsequently gave rise to a substantial body of case law without the Court of Justice going as far as to establish a general principle. Its general wording in the TEC explained its lack of direct effect21, with the treaty instructing derived law to provide content for it. Nevertheless, at this point the right of access changed from a simple option granted on a discretionary basis to the administered by the institutions to a true ‘subjective, fundamental right’22 granted to those targeted by Article 255 TEC.
The Treaty of Lisbon amends this law as it stands significantly in two respects.
First of all, the Charter of Fundamental Rights makes this access a fundamental right. Article 42 has the heading ‘Right of access to documents’, implying that ‘any citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State, has a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents’. The explanatory notes accompanying the Charter point out that this Article 42 ‘has been taken’23 from Article 255 TEC, which provided the basis on which Regulation (EC) 1049/2001 had been adopted, with the Convention wishing to extend its scope.
Advocate General Maduro emphasised this change in his conclusions on the case Sweden v Commission cited above with this ‘protection of the right of access under ever higher norms’: ‘Since the right of access to documents of the institutions has become a fundamental right of constitutional import linked to the principles of democracy and openness, any piece of secondary legislation regulating the exercise of that right must be interpreted by reference to it, and limits placed on it by that legislation must be interpreted even more restrictively.’24
When referring to the relationship between Article 42 of the Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), this EU judge therefore stated that ‘with respect to the right of access to documents of the Union’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, the Charter provides for a special fundamental right’25.
The TFEU itself has also changed the legal environment of the right of access. This has happened, first and foremost, because the protection desired by Member States regarding the confidentiality of the Council’s work disappeared in Article 207(3) TEC 26.
On the other hand, Article 15(1) TFEU confirmed the requirements for ‘good governance’ by providing specific content for the principles of openness and transparency. In paragraph 3 the ways of exercising the right of access to documents on a compulsory basis are expressed in far more precise terms than in Article 255 TEC. The removal of the inter-governmental pillars and the downgrading of the institutional treatment of the JHA and CFSP allow it to cover all the Union’s work, which must be carried out ‘as openly as possible’.
A literal analysis of Article 15 TFEU highlights that this statement is part of an overall initiative. While the Union’s governance requires its work to be conducted ‘openly’ in paragraph 1, paragraph 3(3) of the same article refers to the proceedings of each relevant EU administrative entity being ‘transparent’. Therefore, the systematic nature of the triangle of openness/transparency/document access is outlined in the treaty. Moreover, it clearly states the scope of the obligations incumbent upon the ‘institutions, bodies, offices and agencies’. While the call for the Union’s work to be conducted ‘as openly as possible’ is not necessarily an indication of a constraint, on the other hand, the conditions for the right of access to documents are pinned down in a more binding manner.
Article 15(3) (1) TFEU starts off by defining a right ‘subject to the principles and the conditions to be defined in accordance with this paragraph’. It does not grant the legislature the power of discretion to decide what these ‘principles and conditions’ are. It is the duty of the legislature to implement the right of access allowing EU citizens to enjoy this right. The definition of its general principles and conditions for exercising it is an absolute requirement, governed by ordinary legislative procedure.
The third subparagraph of the same article then reinforces the obligations imposed on the relevant entities: they must ensure that their ‘proceedings are transparent’ and they have to draw up in their own Rules of Procedure ‘specific provisions regarding access’ to documents. This presupposes therefore that the right of access has been regulated before.
Lastly – and this is an important observation – the authors of the treaty expand considerably the group of institutions that are bound by the obligations. The group is no longer just made up of the three main institutions, but in a very general manner incorporates the ‘Union’s institutions, bodies, offices and agencies’. The penultimate subparagraph of paragraph 3 emphasises in the case of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) that they ‘shall be subject to this paragraph only when exercising their administrative tasks’.
This generalisation, which is already taken into account by a number of internal agencies and institutions, therefore reinforces the need for a new text on the right of access, failing which a right based on the Treaties may not be applied.
The value added offered by the Treaty of Lisbon can therefore be summarised as follows: on the one hand, the treaty establishes a real fundamental right of access to documents and, on the other hand, it tightly controls the exceptions to a right whose scope has been generalised. The value added deriving from this for individuals then allows a hierarchy of challenges to be established: before being an institutional challenge within the Union, requiring institutions to have the same amount of information when performing their duties, the access to documents has now become a right of the individual. This shift completes the structural change initiated by the Union’s judicature 20 years ago.
In this legal context, the regulation of the right of access applied by Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 13 years ago seems considerably out of touch nowadays. Both the ‘general principles’ and legitimate ‘limits’ governing the right of access, mentioned in Article 15(3) TFEU, need to be revamped by the legislator by means of the ordinary legislative procedure, a fact which should not be forgotten.
The need to update the regulation actually comes from the triangle described earlier, linking the duties of openness, transparency and access to documents 27. It extends beyond the framework of Article 15 TFEU alone, for instance, in light of Article 298 TFEU. Furthermore, the strictly minimalist approach of the Commission’s second regulatory proposal28 derives more from the amendment to the previous regulation than from the implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon.
Consequently, with regard to both the scope of the right of access and the particular issues relating to the sensitive nature of some classified documents or codifying the advances made in case law for some categories of documents, a new text needs to be adopted.
1.2 Regulatory framework of the right of access to documents
A quick recap of what this framework29 entails will make it possible to assess not only the challenges involved with its revision but also the significant impact of the case law from the Court of Justice and the General Court.
1.2.1 System for the right of access
As a result of the gap in the Treaties, Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 has become the cornerstone of the right of access to administrative documents, which has led the Court of Justice to focus specific attention on the reason for this in order to clarify its use.
This reason provides some guiding principles:
• Access to documents is linked to the principles of transparency and openness referred to by the Treaties, with the regulation consolidating current practices.
• The purpose of the regulation is ‘to give the fullest possible effect’30 to the right of access in its definition of its principles and limits. Therefore, in principle, ‘all documents should be accessible to the public’, in other words, ‘any citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person’ residing there.
• The right of access assumes a particular meaning ‘in cases where the institutions are acting in their legislative capacity’ and it is applicable to CFSP and JHA.
On this point, Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 provides an extremely broad definition of a ‘document’ as Article 3(a) defines it as ‘any content whatever its medium (written on paper or stored in electronic form or as a sound, visual or audiovisual recording) concerning a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions falling within the institution’s sphere of responsibility’. In specific terms, each institution has therefore been granted the procedural mechanisms required to obtain access and, by applying Regulation (EC) 1049/2001, they produce an annual report about its application.
In addition to this key text, other specific texts should be mentioned31 whose interaction with Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 caused difficulties which led the Court of Justice to settle matters (see below)32. The following table33 can provide accordingly a summary of the current state of play….
1 Public access to the European Union documents, State of the law at the time of revision of Regulation 1049/2001′, PE 393.287, 2008 and `Classified information in light of the Lisbon Treaty’, PE 425.616, 2010.
2 Specific reference will be made to our studies Public access to the European Union documents, State of the law at the time of revision of Regulation 1049/2001′, PE 393.287, 2008 and Classified information in light of the Lisbon Treaty’, PE 425.616, 2010.
3 Code of Conduct concerning public access to Council and Commission documents, OJ L 340 31.12.1993, p. 37.
4 OJ L 145, 31.05.2001, p. 43.
5 COM(2001) 428.
6 A. Allemano, ‘Unpacking the principle of openness in EU Law, transparency, participation and democracy’, European Law Review 2014 (forthcoming).
7 J. Mendes, ‘Participation and the róle of law after Lisbon: a legal view on article 11 TEU’, CMLRev 2011.1849.
8 ECJ, 1 July 2008, Kingdom of Sweden and Turco v Council, C-39/05 P and 52/05P, paragraph 59.
9 M. Hillebrandt, D. Curtin, A. Meijer, ‘Transparency in the Council of ministers of the EU: institutional approach’, Amsterdam Centre for European law, Working paper 2012-04.
10 CFI, 25 April 2007, WWF European Policy Programme/Council, T-264/04, paragraph 61.
11 CFI, 17 June 1998, Svenska journalistfórbundet v Council, T-174/95, ECR II-2289 paragraph 66; CFI, 14 October 1999, Bavarian Lager/Commission, T-309/97, ECR II-3217, paragraph 36.
12 CFI, 7 February 2002, Kuijer/Council, T-2011/00, paragraph 52 and ECJ, 6 March 2003, Interporc/Commission C-41/00 P, ECR p. I-2125 paragraph 39.
13 ECJ, 7 December 1999, Interporc v Commission, paragraph 39.
14 Opinion of Tesauro under ECJ, 30 April 1996, Netherlands v Council, C-58/94, ECR I-2169 paragraph 14.
15 D. Curtin, ‘Judging EU secrecy’, Amsterdam Centre for European law, Working paper 2012-07.
16 See A. Meijers,’Understanding the Complex Dynamics of Transparency’, and S. Castellano et A. Ortiz, ‘Legal Framework for e-transparency and the right to public access in the EU’, Transatlantic Conference on Transparency Research, Utrecht, 2012.
17 The analysis will continue to focus on Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001, apart from provisions relating, for example, to environmental law.
18 ECJ, 30 April 1996, Netherlands v Council, C-58/94, ECR I-2169 paragraph 34.
19 ECJ, 18 December 2007, Kingdom of Sweden v Commission, C-64/05, ECR I-11389, paragraph 54.
20 id paragraph 46; see also CJEU, 17 October 2013, Council v Access Info Europe, C-280/11 P.
21 In spite of the calls of some of its Advocate Generals or the positions of the CFI: Advocate General Tesauro speaks of a ‘fundamental civil right’ in the case Netherlands v Council (paragraph 19) and the CFI talks about a ‘principle of the right to information’ (CFI, 19 July 1999, Hautala v Council, T-14/98, ECR. p. II- 2489, paragraph 87) or of the ‘principle of transparency’ (CFI, 7 February 2002, Kuijer v Council, T-211/00, ECR p. II-485, paragraph 52).
22 Opinion of Maduro under ECJ, 18 December 2007 cited above, ECR I-11389, paragraph 40.
23 By mentioning its extension to the ‘bodies and agencies’ of the EU.
24 Opinion of Maduro under ECJ, 18 December 2007 cited above, ECR I-11389, paragraphs 40-42.
25 GC, 29 November 2012, Gaby Thesing v ECB, T-590/10 paragraphs 72-73.
26 ‘For the purpose of this paragraph, the Council shall define the cases in which it is to be regarded as acting in its legislative capacity, with a view to allowing greater access to documents in those cases, while at the same time preserving the effectiveness of its decision-making process. In any event, when the Council acts in its legislative capacity, the results of votes and explanations of vote as well as statements in the minutes shall be made public.’
27 Acknowledged by the Council in its 2012 annual report on exercising the right of access, p.7.
28 COM(2011) 73.
29 For a more in-depth look at the regulatory framework and the associated case law up until 2008, refer to our study ‘Public access to the European Union documents, State of the law at the time of revision of Regulation 1049/2001’, PE 393.287, 2008.
30 CJEU, 21 July 2011, Sweden and MyTravel v Commission, C-506/08 P cited above, paragraph 73 and CJEU, 17 October 2013, Access Info Europe, C-280/11 P cited above, paragraph 28.